Hello Again, Bible

Shoot, I don’t even know where to begin.

I’m reading Rob Bell’s latest – What Is the Bible? – and I’m digging it. In it he explores the human side of the Bible, looking at it for what it really is (from the cover): an ancient library of poems, letters, and stories.

witb-cover.png

It’s so easy to treat it one of two ways: 1) as a holy, sacred text offered from on-high that is infallible, untouchable, inerrant and practically perfect in every way. Or, 2) to just completely reject it. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been treating it as #1. Over the years though, particularly in recent years, I’ve been sliding more toward #2. There’s an internal check, though, which keeps me from going all the way into #2, but as time goes on I see it’s not that I’m sliding more and more toward junking the whole thing, but more toward junking my understanding and reading of it.

The Bible is something I’ve had with me ever since I was a kid. I remember trying to read it on my own as a kid and not getting a thing from it. Then, in the mid-90s, when I had my first real Jesus moment, it came alive to me in a new way. I still have the Bible I got around that time; maybe ’96 or so. It’s an old, beaten up NIV Study Bible. It still has this SUPER long list I wrote in the back of it, naming as many people as I could who I knew or had known. There were times I’d pray for chunks of the names each night over the course of a couple weeks.

Anyway, the systems of Western theology have failed me time and again – on varying levels and to varying degrees – over the years. Or, again, perhaps just my interpretations and implementations of them. In the most recent years – last five or so – I’ve learned that giving up worrying about getting it right has been the best thing for me to improve quality of life.

You see, during that aforementioned Jesus moment, the huge thing was this immense burden of guilt I felt lifted from my soul. For the first time in my life, I felt truly loved, truly safe, truly free. I had never gotten that feeling from anyone else before with perhaps one or two exceptions… It’s that feeling which accompanies the receiving of unconditional love. It’s that feeling that comes along with realizing you’re just enough, you’re just fine the way you are and there’s nothing you need to do to improve yourself except keeping on being you.

I wanted to share that feeling with as many people as I could; I wanted them to be able to feel what I felt. Part of what was taught from my sources of teaching (and what I still hear from time-to-time to this day) is that all who receive Christ’s love have a special gift; they have a cure to the cancer of sin dwelling in the hearts of all who live on the planet. If they don’t get that cure, if no one goes and tells them, then they’re doomed for an eternity in hell.

Over time I came to see a few fundamental flaws in that thinking, not the least of which is the immense guilt complex put upon eager believers wanting to do the right thing. It’s super easy to reach the conclusion that YOU are these peoples’ ONE AND ONLY HOPE for a shot at salvation. Some folks jump on that line of thinking and run with it. Good on them – we all have our journeys. But that’s not mine. Mine is not one to be motivated by guilt; for my understanding is that Jesus takes our guilt away.

For some reason or another, be it genes, inherited disposition, or something else altogether, I find it incredibly easy to be sucked into guilt and flesh that out with some masterful self-loathing. Every time I’d go back to the trough of the Church, somewhere at some point that kool-aid would come up again. So, after my divorce I junked it all again, throwing it into a fire and seeing what remained.

God always remains. You can’t burn the Infinite.

I know there’s more to it all – God; the Bible; faith, love, and hope… Getting out and seeing a fair amount of the world has helped me see this. Getting out from under the burdens of rules and guilt have helped. A very wise man told me that you can choose how you feel in a situation. All depends on how you look at it. Though I rarely believed him or understood him early on, I get it now.

Proverbs 3:5 – Trust in the LORD and lean not on your own understanding.

Don’t trust in rules; don’t trust in things just because a lot of people do; QUESTION AUTHORITY. Question religious authority.

Around that time (going back to the time shortly after my divorce), I heard the story of Mike McHargue on the You Made It Weird podcast. On the episode, he talks a lot about the brain, neuro science, and his story of how he grew up Southern Evangelical, became an atheist, and then a believer again. It spoke to me on so many levels.

Since then, I’ve been actively skeptical, trying to stay out of cynicism for extended periods, and trying to find what’s real and what’s BS; or what’s deeper than the mainstream, common understanding of things.

I’ve come to really appreciate Rob Bell. As I mentioned at the top, I’m reading his most recent book, this one about the Bible.

I just read chapter 13 in which he talks about the story of Jonah. Did a fish actually swallow Jonah, then spit him out three whole days later? Does that matter? Bell says it doesn’t matter because the bigger part is the heart of the story: Jonah going to Nineveh to preach a message of salvation and upon a magnificent success, he wants to kill himself, he wants to die.

In the cultural context, Jonah going to speak to the people of Nineveh, the King of Assyria, is like Elie Wiesel going to speak a message of salvation to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

Bell’s point is that it’s easy to get caught up in whether or not a literal fish literally kept Jonah in its stomach for three days, literally spitting him up on some beach approximately 72 hours after swallowing him and miss that deeper part of the story – forgiving and loving your enemies.

Could any of us forgive and offer a similar message of hope to our greatest adversaries? Could we do it for democrats? For Trump supporters?

For Trump himself?

Or for Hillary Clinton, for that matter?

Could we offer a message of hope to members of the KKK, to bullies, to the members of ISIS?

Could we offer such a message to ex-boyfriends, ex-girlfriends, ex-spouses, to family members who do nothing but criticize you day after day? Just telling them that God loves them and wants the best for them?

I’m not saying anyone should; just asking if anyone could.

In that regard, I believe the deeper meaning of what I now believe to be a parable, at the time, wasn’t to encourage Israelites to plan mission trips to Nineveh. Rather, it’s important that we remember all of us on this planet – from the saintliest saint to the most despicable, vile asshole – are human beings. There should be no Us vs. Them – we’re all in this world together. And we’re all loved by God.

That’s something I never got from the Bible before. Twelve years on since my first meeting with Jesus I reckon it’s about time and better later than never.

I Was Certain…

Woo, dog – going on four months since the last post; my apologies, but, it turns out I needed that unplanned sabbatical.

Last night I finally started reading the book, The Sin of Certainty by Peter Enns. I’ve heard it recommended – at least the author – many times on a couple of my favorite podcasts: Ask Science Mike and The Liturgists. Maybe one or two others, I’m not sure…

Highly Recommended

Anyway, I only got through 3-4 of the first chapters (they’re very short, so far) and already I feel more capable of articulating my faith journey because what Enns describes is similar to my own experience.

Namely, growing up and cultivating a faith of absolute certainty, having a crisis or two of faith over the years, and watching that certainty erode, allowing for a more fluid, robust faith. Not a faith that hinges on arguments or apologetics – just a faith that is.

In so doing, I’ve found I’ve also increased my capacity to practice the greatest of these: love.

Instead of condemning others for perceived sins because I was so certain they were committing them, I can be more patient, compassionate, and understanding.

Instead of having to be right about my beliefs of certainty – and thus, building walls between myself and others – I can be more open and hear more of what people have to say, thus enriching my own life with these new perspectives and experiences.

It’s also easier to spot and stop self-righteousness when I saddle up my high horse and turn a potentially contentious situation into one of vibrant personal growth.

I’ve heard it said that the antithesis of faith isn’t disbelief, but rather certainty. And as I write this, I know that certainty has its place in the human experience, but I think I’m talking more about certainty without humility; certainty that is right and correct beyond a shadow of a doubt with no room for change. A static state. One that can’t grow because it can’t change.

And I guess it’s really more of an attitude than anything. On one hand we need to be able to change, grow, and adapt; but on the other we also need structure, boundaries, and limits. I believe that we need to be able to grow within any given structure, but always with the understanding that the structure itself can change – or that we can grow differently than what the structure prescribes, perhaps needing to restructure it at a certain point, or move on to another altogether.

Of course, this begs the ultimate question about God. Certainty? Faith? Where the hell does that come into play? Well, in the Bible, certainty is never commanded – only faith. There is Hebrews 11:1 – “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”

Maybe it’s more about the target, or object of faith. Because you can put your faith in a certain thing, like levitation by snapping your fingers, but if you were to try it, you would fail; thus, the faith failed because it was placed in the wrong thing.

That’s the thing – realizing we’re living lives of faith. We can’t know any given thing is true. We can act on a certain thing, and if it works out, in that experience, it proves the hypothesis. Then we can try it again, if it works, huzzah. But then at some point maybe it won’t. Then maybe it will again, or maybe it will never again. And that’s when we can either just dismiss it and move on to the next big thing, or we can stay with it; question it, look deeper into it and try to see what’s up.

I think scientists do this kind of thing, too; some kind of method or something of testing principles, looking for certain results, etc. But then again what do I know?

Bottom line is, humility. Faith without it is presumption. We have to be willing to be wrong – about everything – which is why we can’t hold too tightly to anything. But we do this trusting that it’s going to be okay.

After all, what’s the absolute worst that can happen?

INCOMING: “Finding God in the Waves” (book review)

mike-mchargue-photo
Science Mike

The first time I heard of “Science” Mike McHargue was on the podcast You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes. It was episode 201, posted on April 2, 2014. I listened to it when I was in Germany that month. I listened to it a couple times and I’ve listened to it a couple times since. I then got hooked on The Liturgists Podcast, a podcast he co-hosts with a singer/songwriter named Mike Gungor and then his very own podcast Ask Science Mike.

What captivated me initially and keeps me listening is his story.

Mike grew up in the Southern Baptist evangelical church a staunch Christian and in his adult years, married and a father, served as a deacon in his church. When his parents’ marriage fell apart his faith wasn’t too far behind. He began studying the Bible furiously and found his faith crumbling faster and faster. It wasn’t too long before he was an out-and-out atheist, though he kept that a secret from his closest friends and family for as long as he could.

A few years later, the story goes, he had a miraculous encounter with God which ignited his faith in a new way. And now he’s a voice (among many of a growing crowd) for the spiritually frustrated and homeless. It says as much on the Liturgists website.

In April 2014 I was four months out from my divorce. I had been down this road of doubt before and always found myself back in the faith, but this time was different.

It’s funny, but I think all my major catalysts for times of doubt were failed significant relationships. The first time was when my first ever girlfriend dumped me, blaming (from my perspective) God for it. That was the summer of 1998, when I graduated from high school and was getting ready to go to East Carolina University. Three years earlier I had my first real experience with God, where eternity met the there and then, and had been on fire for Jesus ever since.

Well, it was starting to fade by end of senior year, and then going to a “secular” school – outside of home, family and my Christian bubble for the first time – I found myself questioning a great many things.
And so the cycle of doubt-faith-doubt-faith began for me. And again, each period of doubt followed the failed attempt at a significant romantic relationship.

That cycle more or less broke when I went into therapy nearly 10 years later. Well, I don’t know if it broke so much as it evolved. Instead of trying to control everything and be a good Christian boy I started just letting things happen.

Almost another 10 years later I finally got my first shot at marriage, that sacred, holy institution of the Western Church (WC); what the Catholic Church calls a sacrament (and the term Protestant churches appropriate in their search for deeper meaning and depth in their faith to fill the void left by condemning and abandoning all Catholic tradition).

So there was a lot riding on this.

I did everything to the best of my ability – being patient, loving, kind; doing things dictated by the Western Church such as asking my ex to not have any male Facebook friends I wasn’t friends with (that went over SUPER well) and other things along those lines. Being a long-distance marriage didn’t help (I was stationed in a place she wasn’t able to live), but following the prescriptive dictates of the WC didn’t help much either, except to quicken the inevitable, perhaps.

And so I entered another phase of doubt – this time not so much toward God, but toward my understanding of Him as propagated by the WC. However, without that institution I was so accustomed to since birth, I found myself with more and more questions.

Then i9781101906040n April 2014 I listened to the Science Mike episode of You Made It Weird and for the first time learned of the plight of so many other Christians similar to me in Science Mike’s testimony.

When I found out he was writing a book about his experience I was super excited and volunteered to be an advanced reader and reviewer. And so my review of the book will be up some time this week.

However, I strongly encourage you to check it out yourself – shucks, it comes out TOMORROW* (9/13). Check out the linked websites above, listen to his podcasts, listen to the oft-mentioned You Made It Weird episode! It’s great! It changed my life and I’m super duper excited to bring this review to you soon.

 

*depending on your time zone

The Guardian of Manoa

(Lic. from Adobe Stock)
(Lic. from Adobe Stock)

Most days when I’m driving in and out of Manoa Valley, I see this guy walking, sometimes jogging alongside the road. He looks like a local guy, flattop haircut, smart moustache, always wearing the same outfit: black shorts, black shirt and a long-sleeved white-shirt under the black; white socks, black shoes. Most of the time he’s stretching his arms out, like he’s keeping them prepped, warm, ready for action.

And he always has this stern look on his face; and he seems very alert, conscious of everything that’s going on. He seems like the kind of guy you wouldn’t mess with.

I first started running again on July 4th. I wondered if I would run into this guy and what I would do…

Turns out he and I did cross paths; we nodded somberly at each other and instantly I felt this connection, this sense of well-being.

This is the guardian of Manoa.

Now, I’m sure he’s just a man trying to make his way from day-to-day like everyone else. But just seeing him out most days, on patrol, eyes always looking around, I can’t help but imagine that if any danger or threat were to come to this valley, he’d be there.

In Hawaiian mythology, there are guardian spirits – Aumakua – that appear in forms of animal, nature, or man. Whoever the walking man is, I believe he is Manoa’s Aumakua.

My Faith Story – An overview

 

On a Sunday morning it seems appropriate to write/talk about faith.

I never really know where to start when talking about it, though. For instance, what do I have to say that hasn’t already been said?

My main inspirations for this are from a couple other blogs I read – Jamie the Very Worst Missionary and Addie Zierman’s blog. It also comes from The Liturgists Podcast and even a bit of You Made It Weird With Pete Holmes.

A really big push came when I finished reading Addie Zierman’s first book, When We Were On Fire, A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over. That was late last year and the motivation ultimately fizzled. But now I’m in the midst of reading her second book, Night Driving, and I’m finding the inner compulsion welling up again.

Her first book, When We Were On Fire, especially resonated because I felt as though I was reading my own personal history of growing up as an ON FIRE FOR CHRIST teenage crusader; that is, were I a female and had I grown up in the Midwest instead of being a dude growing up in North Carolina.

JUMP!!!
“Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friedrich. Feelin’ this every now and then…

I grew up going to church every Sunday. Once I hit youth group age Wednesday nights were thrown into the mix. The more I started learning about God, the more I became afraid of him.

I distinctly remember in the summer of ’93, we were having a rash of thunderstorms and tornadoes tearing up the piedmont. Whenever a severe storm or tornado warning was issued for our area, I’d go outside and walk into the middle of our neighborhood circle and bargain with God to just hit me and leave my family’s home – and the neighbors’ – alone. My conscience was just so saturated with guilt and fear, and for some reason I’ve always associated weather conditions with God’s immediate presence, that I was sure in those thunderstorms he was gunning for me.

A couple years later I attended my church denomination’s tri-annual youth conference, LIFE ’95. In one of the last large meetings I felt God’s love for the first time. It was the first time I felt no judgment; only love, forgiveness, and as if an enormous weight I didn’t even know was there was suddenly lifted from my soul.

Fast-forward eleven years…I’m in therapy to try and hash out some detectable, but indiscernible emotional issues.

I had been through the height of the True Love Waits movement in which the lesson I took away from it was that my natural, budding, sexual urges were sinful – or could lead to sin. After all, just thinking about having sex was a sin (often citing, and I believe misusing Matthew 5:28).

After considering going to a Christian college I went to East Carolina University instead. I got some advice from an author I admired at the time, John Fischer (just discovered he’s still writing (of course he is!)), asking which would be wiser. He said that if I really wanted to see what my faith was made of, go to the secular school.

Within those four years I experienced a few significant firsts: disillusionment with the Church; abandoning God; sex; grace in a new way; severe self-loathing.

You see, I could have chosen to remain in a Christian bubble, similar to what I had at home, but I decided against that.

And then I moved back home.

It wasn’t long before I found myself cycling between backsliding believer and Bible-thumping asshole.

The jobs I worked at got me further into the real world with the people who I worked alongside and there was more dissonance I felt between being told I should spread God’s good news of unconditional love and yet remain separate from the sinfulness of wicked sinners – especially homosexuals. Shoot, the guy I could most relate to at my first job out of college was gay*. When I worked at a Barnes & Noble café a few years later, one of the shift leads was gay and we’d always, well (heh, heh) have a gay** old time singing showtunes and such toward the ends of our shifts.

As a young adult, the deeper I’d get into the Western Church Machine, the more I found myself despondent, despairing, and ultimately depressed. I couldn’t do anything right. Anything I would do right wouldn’t be me, because God gets all the glory. The only thing I could take credit for was everything I did wrong, and everything I’d do wrong would keep me from knowing God, so just try/pray/read your Bible harder, harder, harder.

Not exactly grace.

So yeah, therapy. First time I was ever told all that was bullshit and that I’m enough as I am. The kernel was planted in my spirit, and has been budding more and more in the last few years, that I will never arrive and be who I was meant to be. I arrived in July of 1980, in all my perfectly flawed glory, and the Darkness got to work (as is wont to happen to all of us who breathe, eat, and shit). But the Light – the Light has always been there, too. And always will be.

I was in therapy for three years, read a bunch of books (I recommend The Ragamuffin Gospel and No Man Is An Island), and went on to make the same damn mistakes…but this time with tools and strategies – a humble way of saying, “the beginning of wisdom” – to augment the ever-present Light and deal with the never-leaving Darkness.

What really helped put things in perspective was my first marriage. Yeah, Jenn’s my second marriage.

That first time out was my last time trying to do things by the book. At the expense of my identity and who I am, I tried following the teachings put out by modern evangelicals instead of trusting my gut. The result was one week of attempted happiness followed quickly by about five months of agony.

Granted, I probably shouldn’t have rushed into it the way I did, but I was sure that if I followed the modern teachings rooted in ancient wisdom everything would turn out okay.

And this is a very generalized telling of the story in extremely broad strokes, but it’s the essence of my experience and how I processed it. It was enough to get me to abandon the system and just go after some freakin’ happiness.

And here I am. Maybe you’ve seen the previous posts in this blog, maybe you haven’t (I’d recommend it for context), but I’m happier and more content with this life than I ever have been.

I still believe in God and Jesus, but I’m finding a need for some serious rethinking on concepts and doctrine; the true depths of mercy, grace, sin, and love.

So, I don’t know what follow-ups to this post will look like, but the door is opened now.

And does any of this resonate with you? Just curious…

Credit: Door Kickers on Facebook
Credit: Door Kickers on Facebook

*adjective, gayer, gayest.

1.

of, relating to, or exhibiting sexual desire or behavior directed towarda person or persons of one’s own sex; homosexual:

a gay couple.

 

**5.

Older Use. having or showing a merry, lively mood:

gay spirits; gay music.

6.

Older Use. bright or showy:

gay colors; gay ornaments.

7.

Older Use. given to or abounding in social or other pleasures:

a gay social season.